Posted Friday, Dec. 21, 2012, at 1:16 PM
Three years ago, I wrote a piece for Slate explaining the peculiar Swedish tradition of coming together every Christmas Eve to watch Donald Duck. The ritual of collectively viewing the 1958 Walt Disney Presents Christmas special “From All of Us to All of You”—known in Sweden by the shorthand “Kalle Anka,” or “Donald Duck”—is as much a part of the holiday to Swedes as Santa Claus is to Americans.
When I first saw the show, I was struck by the blatant 1930s-era Disney racism of one of these cartoons, even as my adopted Swedish family remained unfazed. Now, 53 years after the first airing of Kalle Anka in Sweden, Disney has removed the offending clip from the international version of the special that it distributes to 40 different countries each year.
The clip in question, from the 1932 “Silly Symphonies” short “Santa’s Workshop,” involves a buffoonish “black” doll caricatured in the style of a golliwog or pickaninny. After a rosy-cheeked white doll arrives upright down the pipeline, the black doll falls on its face, yells “Mammy” at the sight of Santa Claus, and then moons the screen (see the 3:33 mark below).
As a Slate commenter noted when the piece was first published, the clip seemed to reference the popular-at-the-time song “My Mammy,” the signature tune of blackface performer Al Jolson. (The song had recently appeared in the first major talkie, The Jazz Singer.) A second segment, which I had mentally noted when I first saw the show but didn’t mention in the original article, featured a dancing Cossack doll with stereotypically “Jewish” features (the doll appears at 5:30), and this clip has also finally been removed.
But as I reported three years ago, Kalle Anka is sacred to the Swedish people and any attempts to alter it are usually met with vocal disapproval. One year a television producer who tried to cancel the program was bombarded with letters, phone calls, and personal threats. While this long-overdue edit seems to have gone over without any major incident, there was still some pushback in the Swedish press.
An article in the third-largest Swedish daily newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, was published with the sensationalistic headline “Storm of Swedish Protest Follows Re-Editing of Kalle Anka.” But the only such “Proteststorm” the paper could point to were reader letters of complaint with quotes like “who the hell gets offended by Kalle Anka and gingerbread men?” But that doesn’t mean the paper was being entirely misleading. One of the country’s other major tabloids, Aftonbladet, published an online reader poll that garnered 40,000 responses, 96 percent of whom said that Disney made the wrong decision in removing the racist cartoon dolls from the special.
Meanwhile, one of the most important figures in the history of Kalle Anka, Arne Weise, the longtime Swedish host of the show, even spoke out against the move. “Weise, 82, thinks it's a shame that Disney stuck their noses in Donald Duck’s Christmas,” Aftonbladet reported. “I know that Disney is in charge, as it has been for all these years. Donald Duck is almost like a religion for many people and I understand that there will be some who are disappointed,” said Weise.
Weise is right that Kalle Anka is a religion in Sweden. But just like any faith, it’s nice to see that the doctrine can evolve.